WOODY GUTHRIE: THE PROTEST SONG TRADITION CONTINUES
by Tom Faigin
In the last article we saw that Joe Hill wrote protest songs as part of a growing working class movement in America. His songs responded to the problems of the day as he saw them:
unfair working conditions and greed on the part of the employers.
The majority of people, so the union— minded thought, were entitled to a bigger piece of the pie.
Woody Guthrie wrote over a thousand songs and people are still discovering more— he was a compulsive writer and often lost interest in his songs after they were written in the wee small hours of the night. He wrote on every conceivable subject from nonsensical kids’ songs for his own kids to serious, political songs that called for action and change and made people more passionate about their convictions. He hit the road when he was only 13 after his mother was committed to a mental institution with an incurable nervous disorder. Later, Woody also came down with this same inherited Huntington’s Chorea. The family split apart as a result and Woody was to begin the first of his many travels. From "Pastures of Plenty. . ."
It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed,
My poor feet have traveled that hot dusty road.
Out of your dust bowl and westwards we rolled,
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold.
He wrote best about the things he experienced himself. He was a sign painter, a fruit picker and a restless traveler from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. He had a radio show in downtown L.A., visited the labor camps of the depressed and unemployed with Will Geer and Cisco Houston and helped raise money for the needy even though he was needy himself.
All the while he was writing songs written to familiar melodies. He freely admitted it. He never wrote an original tune in his life— he just borrowed them from older songs or combined two melodies to make a new one. This was plagiarism at its best because the words, the words were distinctly and uniquely his. Think of "Little Darling Pal of Mine" by the Carter Family. Now think of "This Land is Your Land." Do you hear the similarity?
"This Land is Your Land" is, without a doubt, Woody’s best known song. Some people even think it should be our national anthem. Did you know that it was written as a protest against Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America," a hit song of 1939?
God bless America, land thatI love —Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above...
With people out of work during the height of the Depression, Woody responded with:
This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
Later the last line was changed to "This land was made for you and me," but obviously Woody felt that a lot of people had been dispossessed of their homes and farms and his lyrics clearly show this. Woody wrote many political articles, books, autobiographical sketches for radical newspapers and although he hated injustice, he was invariably optimistic about the future of the ordinary person. He loved to catalog adjectives to describe something or use lots of nouns or verbs to create an effect or mood. He loved word repetition.
"As long as I can slap my hands against my britches’ legs and holler out how pretty Marjorie looks when she’s dancing, folk songs are on their way in, not out. Just as long as Papa and Mama Bird sing for their newly come babies, folk songs are still on their way in, not out. As long as we’ve got wrecks, disasters, cyclones, hurricanes, explosions, lynchings, trade union troubles, high prices and low pay, as long as we’ve got cops in uniform battling with union pickets on strike, folk songs and folk ballads are on their way in." (From "Folk Songs Are On Their Way In," an article by Woody Guthrie.)
Although many books have been written by Woody Guthrie or about him, these three are my favorites:
Bound for Glory, his great autobiography about his early travels; Bound to Win, a series of articles and sketches; and Woody Guthrie: a Life by Joe Klein. This last book is fascinating because of all the newly released material about this bigger—than— life folk hero, with his tremendous talents and his tragic flaws.
Tom Faigin has taught guitar, banjo and mandolin to private students since 1960 while teaching guitar classes at UCLA, CSULA, CSUN and many other colleges, schools and organizations. Tom has performed on radio, TV given concerts and lectured on folk music at California State University at Los Angeles. Currently, Tom is teaching English and ESL at James Monroe High School and actively uses folksongs and guitar music to motivate his students.
This article concludes a discussion of American folk music from an historical point of view that I began in 1985 for CTMS. The articles were based on lectures I gave at CSULA from 1981—1982. I hope you enjoyed reading them.